Feb 09, 2018 Written by: ROG

Behind the scenes in Beverly Hills, where Echo Fox is changing esports

Articles: eSports
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Echo Fox’s sweeping headquarters is a modern man cave. Plush leather chairs and sofas invite indefinite lounging. If you’d prefer a rousing match of ping pong, paddles are primed and ready on a beautiful, handcrafted table nearby. On weekdays, Echo Fox’s assistant Justin Lee assures me, you’ll find team owner Rick Fox regularly trouncing players and investors alike, his former pro-NBA career recreated in miniature.

Beverly Hills is the last place where you’d expect esports to be rapidly evolving, but this giant, 30,000-square-foot facility is part of Vision Venture Partners, the company that owns Vision Esports, Vision Entertainment, and Echo Fox.

Saunter past the 75 ultra modern offices, head beyond the production studios, and you’ll find Echo Fox’s League of Legends training facilities, where the LCS and Academy teams each practice six days a week.

It began with League of Legends, but, today, it’s about much more. The Echo Fox LCS and Academy teams are part of an organization that’s unafraid of experimentation and innovation. They take an unorthodox approach to esports and are expanding into new and untested realms of media and professional gaming. This bustling headquarters is at the center of it all.

When pro sports meets esports

echo-fox-na-lcs-80smallEcho Fox HQ’s 75 offices are airy and bright.

Echo Fox had a landmark year in 2017. That’s when the New York Yankees invested in their parent company, Vision Esports, citing a “bold, innovative approach to their business.” It’s also when Jared Jeffries, former NBA player and then-Denver Nuggets player personnel director, became Echo Fox’s president. Rick Fox wanted to apply the pro sports “front office” concept to esports and believed Jeffries was the perfect person for the job.

Having an esports front office sounds strange at first, but running teams is hard work. Hiring coaches, scouting talented players, negotiating contracts, pricing merchandise, managing social media, and finding sponsors are just some of the many necessary tasks that keep the engine running smoothly and the team afloat. Not only does someone need to do this work, but it’s work that other pro gaming teams historically haven’t managed well. That negatively impacts everyone on the team.

echo-fox-na-lcs-54smallRepublic of Gamers NA LCS contest winners Nick (left) and Evan (right) excitedly hold up their new Echo Fox jerseys. Merchandise is just one line of business handled by a team’s front office.

Thankfully, these are lessons the sports world learned a long time ago. Taking that model and applying it to pro gaming seemed perfectly natural to the former NBA players heading up Echo Fox. Their esports team was one of the first to have a front office, but it’s quickly becoming a requirement for serious pro gaming organizations everywhere.

While the benefits for the business are obvious, surprisingly, the office has also had a clear and immediate impact on player wellness. A front office gives players somewhere to practice besides home, meaning better work-life balance. In a world where working from home is increasingly common, Echo Fox’s LCS team loves their commute.

“I've never seen this before in a gaming team. We’re playing at an office. We commute every day. It’s really nice to have,” says Adrian ‘Adrian’ Ma. If he’s going to be a professional gamer, he wants it to feel like real work, because it is. A short walk to the office builds space between home and work. “It just allows you to reset your mentality,” says Johnny ‘Altec’ Ru. “Coming to work, and then going home.”

Others on the team echoed this sentiment. Josh ‘Dardoch’ Hartnett even chooses to live in his own apartment rather than the team house. “The office situation benefits me a lot as a player, 'cause I can separate scrims from my everyday life,” he says. At the end of the day he can relax with his girlfriend at home, disconnect from technology for a while, and play with his puppy, Biscuit.

There’s evidence that treating professional gaming like a job has real advantages. Cass Marshall, esports journalist and staff writer for Immortals, addresses professional gaming houses and the proven psychological benefits of separating home from work: “When players try to relax in the same home they’ve spent hours of practice in, especially around their teammates who are basically their coworkers, their brains may struggle to let go of work,” she writes. “On the flip side, trying to work in a place that your brain has associated with resting and goofing off may lead to decreased focus and productivity.” In other words, when pro gamers can’t dissociate home and work, both their pro and personal lives can suffer.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small71sm“Defy the Meta” is one of Echo Fox’s HQ slogans. The “metagame” typically describes the game’s current high-level strategies. Their team goal is bucking the status quo and crushing convention.

Jake Fyfe, General Manager of Echo Fox, also saw an immediate difference when Jeffries came on board and began applying his NBA experience. It was especially noticeable during the free agency player recruitment period. “Boom, he flopped down a giant book that said, ‘Free Agency’,” recalls Fyfe. “Then he said, ‘This is how we do it in the Denver Nuggets. We need to do this for esports. Who are all the players you want?’” They spent months doing a deep dive and constructing a detailed player database.

Echo Fox clearly isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. In fact, during Summer Split 2017 they pulled their Challenger team (now called the Academy team) out of the competitive league. From then on, the Challengers only practiced against their LCS sister team. Echo Fox’s reasoning was that pro sports teams rarely practice against their opponents. Why give away free intel about strategies unless it’s absolutely necessary?

echo-fox-na-lcs-78smallCoach Nick ‘Inero’ Smith holds Echo Fox’s playbook while watching pre-game Champion selection.

Echo Fox’s move was totally unheard of in the esports world, but the experiment paid off. “It allows us to use our Academy Team more effectively this year,” says LCS Coach Inero. “We worked out when we want to be practicing internally and what we’ll use it for.”

In 2018 they’re taking a best-of-both-worlds approach, occasionally keeping their Academy practices internal. Without that initial experiment, they’d never have considered this hybrid approach. This willingness to try new things sets Echo Fox apart from the rest.

Dabbling in mixed media

At Echo Fox HQ, just around the corner from the LCS practice room, a long hallway glows and chirps with familiar retro game jingles. “Did you see this? Battle Toads!” exclaims Nick, the New Jersey native who won a trip to watch Echo Fox at NA LCS, meet the team, and tour Echo Fox HQ. His friend Evan rushes over. Together, they lean into the arcade cabinet, faces highlighted in neon as they fire up a game.

Beyond the Battle Toads cabinet is a studio whose decor is part retro gamer, part mid-century modern, and part apocalyptic zombie shooter (with ammo crates to match). It’s where the popular H1Z1 web series Tauntfest is filmed, and it’s just one of three production studios in the building, part of a bigger media investment called Vision Entertainment.

echo-fox-na-lcs-79smallThe H1Z1 Tauntfest set is the perfect combination of retro-gamer-meets-Fallout.

Vision Entertainment, previously HDFilms, has been innovating esports and gaming entertainment for over a decade. They have a variety of scripted and unscripted shows for geeks and gamers. They’ve worked with traditional gaming outlets like IGN, plus mainstream media like Amazon, Hulu, and the CW. They’ve dabbled in a lineup of in-house Facebook Live shows, including ones about cosplay and Dungeons and Dragons. They’re constantly on the lookout for new trends and audiences.

And there are other intriguing experiments, like when Echo Fox partnered with the Republic of Gamers, bringing esports to mainstream TV with H1Z1: Fight for the Crown, an action-packed, five-part esports docu-series whose premiere was hailed by Polygon as “outstanding television.”

Esports on TV is nothing new, but Fight for the Crown did something totally new: it took an esports tournament and carefully edited it into prime-time television. Keeping mainstream audiences in mind, they added approachable commentary and a map to help viewers follow along.

echo-fox-na-lcs-53smallVideo and audio equipment lines the Echo Fox HQ halls. It’s not uncommon to quietly tiptoe past an in-progress livestream for Facebook Live or Twitch.

The result was television that anyone could watch. By drawing parallels with game shows, reality TV, and documentaries, the show proved that esports wasn’t just a digital version of sports primarily enjoyed by gamers. This had serious mainstream potential. As the first of its kind, it was an ambitious media move, but it certainly wasn’t the last. This is all part of a greater vision, one where superfans and gamers aren’t the only ones watching pro gaming.

“People that watch football don't play football. People that watch hockey don't play hockey,” says Jared Jeffries. “Right now you have so many people that love a certain game and they just focus on that game.” He wants to go bigger. He envisions a world where League of Legends fans watch CS:GO and non-gamers tune in, too. “The biggest sports in the world attract and maintain the casual fan,” he says. “If we can do that in esports, the sky's the limit.”

These goals might sound lofty, but Jeffries is optimistic, partially because he’s seen it done before. Esports being viewed as niche isn’t a unique problem. It was once an issue for the NBA, too. In the entertainment world, basketball, with its mainstream following and huge capital, was previously considered a sport only enjoyed by a select few. When Jeffries joined as a rookie, just one channel televised two national games each week. “Now, there's national games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Jeffries says. “That's how big just basketball has gotten.” Jeffries doesn’t just think the same is possible for esports; he knows it.

Making those future moves

Echo Fox made another surprising move that year, one that probably raised some eyebrows: H1Z1. Although the battle royale survival game was rapidly gaining popularity, it was still in Early Access. Echo Fox was the very first organization with a professional H1Z1 roster. It was a bold choice given a pro league wasn’t even established for another year. To say they were ahead of the curve is an understatement.

echo-fox-na-lcs-73smallJared Jeffries has gotten back into gaming because of Echo Fox. His favorite new title? Dragon Ball FighterZ.

Then again, it’s exactly their job to predict these trends before they’re obvious, whether it’s creating a comedic D&D Facebook Live show or assembling a pro team for an up-and-coming MMO battle royale game.

So, what’s on the horizon for Vision Venture Partners, Vision Entertainment, or even just Echo Fox? For now, they’re keeping those cards close to their chest. But one thing is for certain: Jared Jeffries has been playing a whole lot of Dragon Ball FighterZ.

“What’s the pro scene like for that?” I ask jokingly.

“It's going to be big,” he laughs. “I'm getting two guys in that scene for sure.”

He’s definitely kidding. Then again, you never know. When it comes to this bunch, he might actually be onto something.

By Kimberly Koenig

Articles: eSports
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